AUGUSTA — City councilors approved funding for additional police patrols downtown in response to complaints from workers and business owners that increasing illegal and improper behavior there is making them and visitors afraid for their safety downtown.

Councilors voted unanimously Thursday to appropriate up to $14,300 to provide more of a police presence downtown for the rest of this summer.

“We want the downtown to be a welcoming area. That’s the whole point of this. We want people there,” Mayor William Stokes said. “What we don’t want is people intimidating people who are there.”

Last week, downtown merchants and workers asked the city, at a council meeting, to make downtown safer. They said they’d been attacked while walking home after work; said they had witnessed drug dealing, erratic behavior, panhandling and prostitution; and said fewer people are going downtown out of fear of being harassed.

Some downtown workers said people using “spice,” a synthetic, apparently legal drug, spend much of the day downtown, and sometimes, apparently hallucinating, yelling and intimidating passersby.

Ward 1 Councilor Michael Byron said the city was grappling how to deal with those issues and said police officials would determine the best way to respond.

Nicole Adams, a manager of Cosmic Charlie’s, a downtown gift and smoke shop, said that since a newspaper article about the downtown problems described at the council meeting appeared last week, the shop has been harassed by people accusing it of selling spice, although the store was not accused by anyone at last week’s meeting — or in a Kennebec Journal article after the meeting — of selling the substance.

She said the store hadn’t sold any such materials in at least two years.

“We don’t even sell that synthetic material at Cosmic Charlie’s,” she said. “We haven’t in a long time. We’re getting a lot of negative heat from that assumption. We’ve invited people into the store to see we don’t have that. I can’t speak to the other stores.”

She said she had heard there were problems downtown but she had not seen any similar incidents in the store.

At-Large Councilor David Rollins encouraged Adams “to join us and become more aware of what’s going on outside the store. I think the (Augusta Downtown Alliance) and everbody in the neighborhood working together with the city of Augusta has got to be beneficial.”

Police administrators and City Manager William Bridgeo, in response to the concerns expressed about downtown safety last week, came up with a proposal to spend up to $14,300 from the city’s undesignated fund balance to pay for increased police patrols downtown for the remaining several weeks of summer.

Bridgeo said the money will be used to pay officers already with the department to work overtime patrolling the downtown rather than hire a new officer.

Bridgeo said they arrived at the $14,300 figure by estimating the cost of overtime for a patrol officer to spend 10 hours a day, seven days a week, patrolling downtown for the next six weeks.

Deputy Police Chief Jared Mills said Thursday that in practice, officers probably won’t spend 10 hours straight downtown. Instead, he said, they might work four-hour blocks focused on downtown, with the time of day of those shifts moved around.

Mills said the extra patrols would be supplemented with some other ideas he’s working on, which could include a program similar to a neighborhood watch.

Mills said he spoke with about a dozen business owners this week and spent enough time downtown to witness some of the behavior they’d expressed concerns about.

He said they would address the problem with a community policing and neighborhood-watch model, and they would work with Steve Pecukonis, downtown manager and executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance. Mills said he would ask Pecukonis to act as a sort of president of a neighborhood watch for downtown and report problems to police.

Bridgeo said the patrols would continue until at least Labor Day but could continue into September, depending on how many hours officers work overtime downtown in the next several weeks.

The officers doing the extra patrols downtown would focus on that part of the city while on overtime, but they still would respond to crime and emergencies elsewhere in the city.

Bridgeo said the specifics, including the time of day of increased patrols downtown, would be up to Police Chief Robert Gregoire and other police supervisors. He anticipates it would include some foot patrols, something merchants said could help when they spoke to city councilors last week about the problems they’d experienced downtown.

Bridgeo said the increased patrols would ensure officers are visible and would discourage the type of behavior downtown workers complained about.

He said he believes the department has enough staff to fill the additional overtime shifts “to effect the results we’re looking for.”

The money will come from the city’s undesignated fund balance, a sort of surplus account made up of funds unspent in previous years and reserved for unanticipated expenses not budgeted for in the annual budget.

At-Large Councilor Dale McCormick urged police to make a distinction between people who might look different from white businesspeople but aren’t doing anything illegal and people committing illegal acts there.

She said the city wants to draw more artists and others who may look “different” to downtown.

Councilors said the problem has become more apparent now because the revitalized downtown has brought more people to shop, work and live downtown.

Paradis said he spoke with some Water Street merchants Thursday afternoon who said they appreciated the additional police patrols. Paradis said an increased police presence already seemed visible Thursday.

Mills said police already had started increasing patrols downtown.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedardskj


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